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How can the workplace affect our mental health?

Workplace mental health (Credit: Islandstock / Alamy Stock Photo)

7 min read

One in four of us will experience some form of mental health problem every year, charities claim. So what can employers do to support staff experiencing a crisis?

Campaigns such as Time to Talk; Every Mind Matters; Britain Get Talking; and It Feels Good to Share have sprung up recently in part to tackle the feelings of shame so often associated with mental health. But while admitting mental instability to friends and family may be difficult, opening up to colleagues in the workplace can be even more daunting. Last year research by YouGov revealed around two-thirds of people who had taken time off work for mental health had concealed the reason why.

Abby Jane, a 39 year-old hairdresser from Brentwood, was shocked by the reaction of her colleagues when she took leave from work due to poor mental health.

“I had been in the industry for about 18 years,” she says. “For the first two to three years I was working six to seven days a week to build my client base. I didn’t want to take time off because I’d lose my clients, so there really weren’t a lot of ways for me to self-care. I knew that I had depression, but my mania would always come out in productive ways, it was never destructive. I never felt it was a negative thing,” she says.

We want employers to see promoting good mental health as more than a legal obligation, but part of being a responsible employer

Jane ended up in hospital after having a breakdown at work. But on her return, she struggled with gossiping colleagues who did not fully understand or respect her mental health problems. Looking back, she wonders whether a lack of a human resources department was to blame.

She did, however, feel supported by her employer, who gave her extended leave to recuperate. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal duty to make adjustments for any employee experiencing a disability, including long-term mental health problems. Supporting employers to care for their staff became a key concern for the government in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, most employees were compelled to work from home, put on furlough, or made redundant. Mental health worsened by 8.1 per cent on average as a result of changing working habits and the pandemic more widely, according to analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2020.

Abby Jane
Abby Jane

In its 2021 Covid-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan, the government noted that poor mental health costs employers between £33bn and £42bn a year, and the economy between £74bn and £99bn a year. In his open letter to businesses, then-small business minister Paul Scully stressed that “supporting mental health in the workplace has never been more important.”

The paper outlined several ways in which businesses could support their employees. These included signposting for employees to mental health support services through the Business Support Helpline, supporting employees via the Department for Work and Pensions’ Access to Work programme; and continuing to support the Thriving at Work Leadership Council, which issues resources advising employers on managing mental health in the workplace.

While the paper was welcomed by some, Andrew Berrie, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind, argues that, “there are still a number of things we want to see the government do, including a Statutory Sick Pay system that pays more and kicks in sooner, not from day three, so people don’t end up going to work when they should be off sick, because they’re worried about paying the bills.”

Berrie also calls for more senior business leaders, parliamentarians and others in positions of power and influence, to open up about their own experiences of mental health. “We know this can often cause a snowball effect in helping to normalise the conversation,” he says. “High-profile individuals speaking out is even more helpful and timely within the context of the pandemic and cost of living hike, when more of us than ever are struggling with our mental health.”

Results of a survey published in BMJ Open indicate that MPs are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general public. While an anonymised Health and Wellbeing service has been available to MPs since 2013, 77 per cent of respondents did not know the service existed, and 55 per cent did not know how to access it. Around half said they were unwilling to open up about their mental health to party whips or to other MPs.

When Samantha Turner, a coach and positive psychologist at the wellbeing consultancy White and Yellow Group, approached her local MP to inquire about the mental health support politicians receive in Parliament, she says she was “shut down with a very gruff response”. She feels, “it was a very male, old-school kind of reaction that suggested there was reticence to talk about mental health at all, because of the stigma, or the potential impact on their role.”

Today, men in the United Kingdom are three times more likely to die by suicide than women, according to the Office for National Statistics. However women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men, as reported by the University of Leicester and NatCen Social Research in their Mental Health and Wellbeing in England study.

“Maybe it’s not that women suffer more, but that women are more willing to get help,” Turner explains. “There are so many schemes set up for women returning to work after a career break, particularly in financial services and medicine – high pressure sectors where it can feel like a very difficult process returning. Having children can be an isolating experience, so women tend to find connections in communities or groups, where they can talk about how they’re feeling and share their experiences. I believe that women are more likely to have somebody to talk to about their concerns before it becomes a mental health problem. Whereas I cannot think of many groups that are similarly structured for men to be able to open up this freely.”

Mental health charity Mind (Credit: Bigred / Alamy Stock Photo)
Mental health charity Mind (Credit: Bigred / Alamy Stock Photo)

In certain industries, such as construction, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than the national average for men. Mental health charities like the Lighthouse Club and Mates in Mind specialise in industries including transport, construction and manufacturing – attempting to train a typically masculine workforce in identifying potential mental health issues.

Helping colleagues who may be experiencing multiple, sometimes-undiagnosed, mental health problems can be tricky when these problems manifest in unusual ways, says Turner.

“If you were doing a mental health first aid course, one of the things they would say is to look out for changes in the person,” she continues. It could be someone stopping attending meetings or social events, or avoiding taking on additional tasks. “They slowly start to step back from things they found that they were doing quite capably before,” she explains.

In practice, managers should first ask the member of staff how they can support them. Among the adjustments they may then receive, an employee may be able to negotiate working flexible hours, change their location of work, phase back into work when they are ready, change their break times, receive more support from managers to prioritise and manage their workload, or gain access to quiet rooms.

For Berrie, supporting staff with mental health issues is a way of chipping away at the stigma around mental health more generally. “We want employers to see promoting good mental health as more than a legal obligation, but part of being a responsible employer and sending a message to staff that they are valued and appreciated,” he says. “Changing the negative culture around mental health and tackling the causes of stress and poor mental health at work will benefit all staff, whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem or not.”

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